There's a story that, on March 8th 1890, Bram Stoker, the Dublin-born author of Dracula, contracted food poisoning from a dressed crab in a fashionable London restaurant. The ensuing vivid nightmare about blood-sucking creatures was direct inspiration for his Gothic Count. If that dream had had a soundtrack, then it could have been provided by THE HAAR, an Anglo-Irish four piece in Bristol to celebrate St Patrick's Day.
It is entirely fitting that their new album is called Where Old Ghosts Meet because this evening, in this packed church, ghosts are all around us. The Haar take traditional Irish songs, songs that we all know, and paint them in different, darker, scarier colours. This is not a dyed-green-Guinness-and-a-bit-o'-craic Ireland, this is the coast of Connemara Ireland, this is watching the fog roll in around The Skellig Islands Ireland. This is devastatingly beautiful and more than a little intense.
Part of that intensity comes from Molly Donnery and her extraordinarily evocative voice. Where so many of the songs feature a heavy death toll, Donnery provides both a pin-drop vulnerability and the quiet fury of the wronged. There are moments, particularly on Craigie Hill and Two Sisters, where she sounds a tiny bit like Cara Dillon but with all of the emotion and rough edges still, very much, intact. It's also quite something to cover a Mary Black song - Anachie Gordon in this case - and utterly do it justice.
The other provider of intensity is Cormac Byrne. It's not that often you watch a band and can't drag yourself away from the bodhrán player, but Byrne is remarkable. He literally provides the heartbeat around which everything else can work. It's the sound that you can hear pulsing through you at 3 o'clock on a panicked morning. You notice it most on She Moved Through The Fair where this song stops being all All About Eve wafty-ness and, instead, it's a hypnotic swirl. Donnery's voice and Byrne's bodhrán overwhelming the senses, creating a fair with too many people, too many sensations, too much to see.
It seems almost clichéd to expect to hear The Wild Rover on St Patrick's Day and, surely, it was played a million times up and down the country tonight. One thing's for sure though, none of those versions sound like The Haar's. Theirs is slowed to a lament and is as dark as Dracula's cape. The horror of the song is amped up with a new verse where the young man is murdered by the landlady. It is terrifying. In a very good way.
Equally disconcerting is Whiskey In The Jar. Anyone expecting a rousing romp in the Thin Lizzy mold might have to have a bit of a re-think because this one is very sinister indeed. Adam Summerhayes, on fiddle, has been adding scarily brilliant textures all night and it is here that those textures take on a blood-red hue. At turns sustaining a solitary high note, then plunging into a breakneck pace, as though being chased by the very devil himself. All the while he is ably assisted by Murray Grainger (his bandmate in The Ciderhouse Rebellion) on accordion, the two of them stretching the canvas for the band to paint upon.
There were no painful, Oirish stereotypes tonight, instead this was a St Patrick's night to remember. It was thinking-person's music, not drinking-person's music.
Before all of that intensity, SOLARFERENCE brought their own brand of theatricality. A duo hailing from Bristol and Devon, Nic Janaway and Sarah Owen are usually found mixing genres with a heap of clever electronics. Here, though, they play things straight and their voices, and songs, shine. Owen's voice, in particular, is lovely and her background in sonic art is telling. On Milder and Mulder the pair weave two songs together - one English, one Welsh - and the effect is quite magical.
St Patrick's night at Downend Folk & Roots was absolutely everything that you'd dream of. Simply beautiful music and no nightmares.
Words: Gavin McNamara
Photos: Barry Savell